The woman’s face pinched as another loud bout of hammering commenced. “She’s doing well. And what are they doing over there, anyway, trying to break through the wall?”
“It sounds that way, doesn’t it? I’m glad they’re supposed to open in another week or so. The noise has got to stop soon.” Chelsea definitely had her fill, though, and decided to have a chat with the friendly workmen next door as soon as she finished this job.
Trying to pretend her heart wasn’t starting to race in dread and anticipation of biting someone’s head off, she smiled and redirected the conversation.
Ten minutes later she’d waved Mrs. Summers out the door and swept up her area. She double-checked the schedule to be sure her memory was correct. Yes, she had a break between clients. Taking off her apron, Chelsea looked in a mirror to ensure her short red hair wasn’t sticking out every which way and her stylish new outfit still gave off business vibes, then headed next door. “You will be strong, confident, and firm,” she told herself as she stepped into the San Jose sunlight and turned left.
The parking lot was half-filled with work trucks. A blue Lexus parked in one of the prime spots in front of the salon she managed, forcing her clients to walk half a block to their cars, while some idiot took the best spot. The sight irritated her. She’d seen the car several times since the work started next door.
Chelsea pushed open one of the double glass doors to the restaurant. When no one looked her way, she yelled out to be heard over the din, “Whose is the blue Lexus out front?”
A tall man with a dark beard and mustache and a pair of wire rims gestured to the kitchen with his paint brush. “It’s the boss’ car. He’s back there.”
“Idiot people think they own the world,” Chelsea muttered under her breath, not wanting to be overheard—as if anyone could hear her with the pounding still going on in the kitchen. “Hello?” she called, stepping through the doorway. Two guys argued over blueprints, one in typical contractor’s garb, and the other in a sleek charcoal suit. When no one responded, she raised her voice. “Hello!”
The pounding stopped the instant before she yelled. It must have been coming from the other side of the walk-in cooler because she couldn’t see where it was. Both men looked at her in surprise.
Embarrassment was her first reaction because she'd been caught yelling. Her second was a punch of surprise as she recognized the man in the suit. She tipped her head, studying him for a second longer to be sure it really was Vaughn Krenshaw.
His eyebrows shot up. “Chelsea?” he asked, grinning at her. “I haven’t seen you in ages. What are you doing here?”
She blinked, then pushed the shock away and reminded herself to take control—if she could. Her breath came in short gasps and the teenage awkwardness she’d always felt around him hit her with a vengeance. “I manage the salon next door, where we can’t hear ourselves think because it’s so noisy over here.” She was glad she’d worn her nicest slacks that morning and the new blouse she’d purchased the previous week.
His smile slipped a little, and he ran a hand over his dark, wavy hair. “I’m sorry. We should be done with the worst of it in the next hour. I would have had them save the noisiest stuff for after your closing time, but you’re open too late. There’s not really a good time.” He took a couple steps in her direction, his eyes riveted on her face. “I heard you were working in a salon here in the city, but I didn’t know where.
You’re really next door? Just like always?”
Chelsea couldn’t help but smile at the warmth in Vaughn’s voice. He’d always been able to melt her into a puddle with one of his smiles. Dang it. “Wrong side of the wall this time; I used to be on your left.” She smiled to soften her next sentence. “The noise is really disturbing my clients. I’ve had several people say they wouldn’t be back until you guys quit the racket. And,” she might as well bring it up while she still had the fortitude. “Is that your blue Lexus?”
“Yes, why?” He looked at her with surprise.
“Is there any way you could not park it in front of my place?” She twisted her hands in front of her, nervous to be making a reasonable request. “That’s one of our prime spots. I know you probably don’t like walking from the back of the parking lot any more than my clients do, but . . .”
“But they are paying customers, and I am not.” His full lips curved in a smile, revealing even, white teeth.
She had to swallow to push back her gut reaction to him. How could he still affect her, even after nine years apart? “Yeah. I know it’s a pain, but with all the work trucks in the parking lot, the space is already pretty tight.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, and I’ll ask the guys to park farther out if they aren’t going to be running back and forth a lot.” He moved closer as they spoke and now stood only a few feet away. Close enough for her to see the golden spokes in his brown eyes and the way they crinkled in the corners when he smiled.
“I’d really appreciate it.” She took a moment to look around now that the main issue was settled. Gleaming chrome covered all the counters and cupboards. A pile of boxes stacked in the corner was marked shelving. “It looks like you’re coming along in here.”
A man emerged from the walk-in cooler, a hammer in hand. She wondered what he’d been pounding on. Whatever it was, she felt relief it was over.
“We’re coming along. The contractor is mostly done here. We’re having an inspection in a few days and then we can bring in the tables and decorations.” Vaughn started walking her to the door. “It’s been a major production. More than I remembered from the last restaurant we opened.”
“You’ve started other restaurants?” She knew his family was in the food business, but he always struck her as more of a business man than a food-preparation man. Surely he wasn’t a chef.
“My wife’s family owned the chain, but shortly after we married, her parents became too sick to run it. So we took it over. This will be our fourth restaurant.”
Chelsea’s heart dropped when she heard the word “wife.” Which was stupid, because what gorgeous, LDS man wouldn’t be married by the time he was, what, twenty-eight now? He was three years older than her. Enough of an age difference he hadn’t noticed her rapt attention was something more than hero worship. “She must be really excited to see this coming together.”
“She was excited when we started talking about this branch.” His face grew pained, and he didn’t meet her eye. “Then she caught meningitis last year. She didn’t recover. It took me a little longer than I expected to get around to following through with our plans.”
Chelsea could tell it was still hard for him to talk about. They’d reached the front door and she put her hand on his arm. “I’m sorry. I hadn’t heard.” When his family had left the neighborhood all the news about him had quickly ceased.
“So you’re opening when?” she asked, wanting to change the subject to something more positive. She looked around, nodding her approval of the strong blues and greens of the décor.
“In ten days, if everything stays on schedule.”
“Terrific. I’m sure it’ll be great.” She moved her hand away from his arm and pushed the front door open, hesitant to go, but knowing she couldn’t hang around any longer. “I have another appointment. I’m sure she’ll be glad to have missed the worst of the pounding.” The added the last with a teasing grin.
“If she has,” Vaughn said.
Chelsea pulled a face, making him chuckle. “I guess I’ll see you around.” She forced herself to accept his goodbye and leave. Her heart didn’t stop drumming until she’d seen her next client to the hair-washing station. Vaughn owned the place next door. She’d probably run into him in the future. Could it be a lucky star? The thought made Chelsea nervous and her stomach flutter.
That was, until the hammering started up again.
* * *
“Daddy, tell me a story about Mommy.”
Vaughn looked down into his little girl’s eyes and smiled. Molly was the center of his life and the only thing that kept him moving through the motions of living after his wife’s passing. Now he was starting to feel he was getting back on track and things were coming together again. Even Molly was acting a little more like her old self. Since the funeral she had, by turns, been quiet and defiant; but enthusiasm gleamed in her eyes now.
“I could do that. What do you want me to tell you about?”
“The day you met.” She snuggled deeper under her covers. “I like that one.”
He lay back on the bed next to her, leaning against a couple of decorative pillows and keeping his shoes off the edge of the bed. “It was a single adult activity. We were having dinner and she came with some of her friends from church. Your grandma had been nagging me to go, but I had just come off my mission, so I didn’t know a lot of the kids there and I wasn’t sure about being out in public by myself again.” She wouldn’t understand why being in a social situation alone after so long of having a companion at his side was uncomfortable. But she didn’t ask about it, and he wasn’t volunteering.
“And you saw her across the room.” Molly yawned. She didn't bother to cover her mouth since her hands were tucked under the covers.
“Yes. She was the prettiest girl at the party and I wanted to go over and talk to her, but since I was feeling kind of shy and embarrassed, I got my food and sat down with some guys I knew. Afterward the girls from her table came over to us. One of them was the cousin of one of the guys by me. When she walked over to say hi, your mom came too. We talked for a few minutes before they split us off for games. The activity was a lot of fun, but I didn’t get to see her much because we were on opposite teams.”
“But why, Daddy? Why didn’t you go on her team too?”
“Because they told us which team to be on. But we talked again at the end when we cleaned up, and I got her phone number.” He remembered it so well, the nerves jumping through his system, the anticipation and sweaty-handed feeling, wondering if she would laugh in his face. “I worried she would say no, but she gave it to me. I called her the next day and asked her out.”
“And did you know you would love her right away?” Molly’s eyes drooped.
“I could tell she was special, and I wanted to get to know her better. It didn’t take long to know that she was the one I wanted to be your mommy.” Longing grew in his chest deepening the sadness he’d lived with since Paula’s meningitis was diagnosed. They thought it was the flu, but she got worse and worse, and refused to go to the doctor until they couldn’t explain away the rash and confusion.
Coma and death were days behind the diagnosis. The doctors claimed that even if they’d caught it a few days earlier, the strain was practically untreatable, so they probably couldn’t have stopped it.
“I miss her, Daddy.”
“Yeah, punkin. Me too.” He leaned over and kissed Molly’s forehead, then got up and left the room, pausing to look back at her before he closed the door most of the way.
He continued on down the hall to the living room, taking time to clear away the little pieces of flotsam that always appeared around the house after he cleaned up. The silence stifled him, heightening his loneliness, his memories of Paula so close they practically filled the air.
Vaughn picked up their final family picture, taken a few weeks before Paula grew sick. Molly had been such a tiny little girl. At five, she was still far too young to be motherless. He wondered if she would even remember her mother for herself.
A lot of workmen had traipsed in and out of the restaurant in the past few days, and this morning Chelsea saw people entering, dressed as kitchen and wait staff. To her relief, the noise mostly disappeared that week.
“Dani, can you grab me another bottle of this shampoo?” Chelsea asked when she realized the stuff at the hair-washing station was gone.
The curly-haired blonde disappeared into the storage room and Chelsea returned her attention to her client. She thanked Danica for the new supplies and went back to work on the client’s hair.
A few minutes later they moved to the chair. She was wrapping the drape around her client’s shoulders when she saw Vaughn’s car pull up front, into one of the salon’s parking spots. She gritted her teeth and forced a smile for her client. There were more important things to focus on than where Vaughn parked.
When the appointment ended, Chelsea started to sweep her area. Should she go next door and remind Vaughn about the parking spot? No, she wouldn’t. She wanted to, but it would only cause problems if she nagged him. And to be fair, he hadn’t parked there since they talked last. Until today, anyway.
The sound of a tinkling bell filled the air and the door flew open. She hoped for a walk-in client. She had the next half hour free. Vaughn stood in the doorway carrying several bulging white plastic bags. A little girl of five or six walked beside him with another in her hands.
He scanned the room, then stopped when his eyes landed on hers. “Chelsea,” he said, loud enough to be heard in her corner.
Several of the other technicians’ heads swiveled in his direction, then back at her, speculative expressions on their faces. Chelsea ignored them and moved toward the front counter. “It looks like you’re making headway over there. Are you set for your grand opening tomorrow?”
“You tell me. We’re testing the menu and I thought maybe your staff would like to taste test for us.” His smile was easy and he held up one hand carrying two bags. “Molly wanted to help bring some over, too.”
Chelsea looked down at the little girl and could see her dad’s features reflected on her face. “Hi, you must be his daughter. I’m Chelsea. I’m pleased to meet you.”
Molly’s eyes glittered and she grinned her father’s grin. “Hello. The food’s really yummy. I hope you like it.” She sounded as if she had rehearsed the words.
“In that case, how could we say no? I’m sure we’ll love the food. Come on back,” she gestured toward the break room. “Would you like me to help you with that?” she asked Molly.
“No, I got it.” Molly marched toward the door Chelsea had indicated, her long brown braid trailing down her back.
“She’s cute,” Chelsea said to Vaughn as they took up the rear.
“I think so.” There was laughter in his eyes.
“Independent, isn’t she?” Chelsea murmured.
“As a mule. And twice as cute as a kitten.”
Good genes. Chelsea couldn’t help but think it, though she hadn’t seen so much as a photograph of the girl’s mother. The curious eyes of her staff continued to follow them through to the back. A little whisper started from those close enough to hear his offer of free food, as the news was passed all the way to the back corners. As soon as the clients started to leave, Chelsea knew the break room would fill up.
“This was very thoughtful of you,” she said as they set out the containers of Italian food on the counter.
“I owe you guys an apology for the noise and inconvenience the past month or so.”
The work on his restaurant had gone on longer than that, but the noise and trucks had only become a real bother for the past few weeks. Knowing the peace offering would ease the strained feelings everyone had about the restaurant, she smiled. “Well, thanks. You didn’t have to, but I think you must be psychic; it’ll help.”
“No, not psychic,” he said with a grin. “Just a good judge of human nature.”
Chelsea felt her heart flop over in her chest again and told herself she was being silly. Vaughn’s wife had only been gone for a year. And he probably wasn’t interested in her, anyway. He was just a savvy businessman easing bad feelings.
She told herself that again when he and his daughter left ten minutes later, after she promised to keep in touch.
* * *
They had a few problems with the service that evening, but by and large Vaughn was pleased with how things were going in the restaurant. Thanks to his staff's being trained at the other restaurant this past week, things clicked along pretty well.
He grinned when he turned and saw his brother, Bruce, enter through the front doors. “Hey, you made it.”
“Who am I to turn away a chance at free food?” Bruce clapped Vaughn on the back. He took a good look around the place and smiled. “Paula would like it. You’ve done a great job. What does Sharon say about it?” He asked about Vaughn’s mother–in-law.
“She hasn’t seen it since we brought in all of the fixtures, but she liked the plan and the colors. Come, have a seat.” Vaughn led him to an empty table and looked around for the nearest wait staff. “Same menu as the other one, but take a minute to look it over if you like.” He handed over a menu from the host’s station.
They chatted with only a few interruptions while Bruce picked his dinner, ordered, and waited for delivery. “I guess you’ve eaten already?” Bruce asked.
“Yeah. Molly and I ate before her sitter swung by and picked her up. It was nice that she was out running errands nearby.”
“How’s that working?”
Vaughn shrugged. “I hate that she spends so much time in daycare, but she likes it there and has friends to play with. I bring her to work with me if my schedule permits. She gets a little bored, but says she likes being with me.” There were no easy answers, unfortunately. “She’s really starting to settle in again and is doing well, though. She starts kindergarten in a few weeks.” The thought made it hard to swallow. How could his baby girl be going to school already?
“I’m glad she’s doing better.” Bruce studied him for a moment. “You seem to be doing better, too. How’s it going? Are you dating yet?”
Vaughn shook his head, but his mind slid to Chelsea. He’d always thought she was nice, but seeing her again like this, all grown up, had him thinking about her in ways he never had before. “I don’t think I’m ready. I’m still trying to keep it together.”
“I guess you’ll know when the time comes, but don’t wait too long. Paula wouldn’t want you to be alone.”
“No, she wouldn’t.” Paula had even managed to tell him that in the hour before she’d slipped into her coma. It was one of the last things she’d said. Vaughn didn’t want to think about that, though, so he changed the subject. “Hey, you’ll never guess who’s managing the salon next door. Little Chelsea Robison.”
Bruce’s eyes bulged. “That towheaded little girl who always hung around when we least wanted her there?”
“One and the same. Only she’s all grown up now.”
“Yeah? Is she single?” When Vaughn nodded, Bruce smiled. “Maybe you should test whether or not you’re ready to start dating again.”